Only some of this is about Jeremy Clarkson

Try to forget one man and his silly comments.

This was going to be a post about Jeremy Clarkson. About how I like Clarkson: as right-wing writers go, he's rather good. (He's no PJ O'Rourke, no matter how desperately hard he tries, but he makes me chuckle. I hereby ask for my "The Left" membership card to be rescinded immediately.)

This isn't a case of: "First they came for the Clarksons, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a jowly denim-clad petrolhead oaf roaring half-baked grandstanding silliness to needle-dicked losers who like cars." This is just a silly man saying silly things, exaggerating them to make them sound sillier.

Wouldn't you know it, he's got a book out as well; I'm sure this entirely coincidental controversy might shift a few units. The more people get outraged, the more of them will probably be sold, and the more money he'll make. See how Clarkson nourishes himself by licking your salt tears of outrage; see how your hate has made him powerful.

I was going to expand on all of that, but then I saw the news, and Clarkson's comments being the lead item on the news, and it depressed me entirely. Thousands upon thousands of people all over the country got together yesterday to battle against the Government, yet because one person says some tedious trolling deliberately controversial load of old guff to flog a few books, that's shifted the entire focus of public debate. Doesn't that depress you?

This suits The Right (well, if they can use capitals and huge overgeneralisations, I don't see why I can't, so I'm using "The Right" to mean "everyone I don't like, from Ronald Reagan to Ronald McDonald, tainting everyone with the actions of the people I dislike the most") very well indeed. They might like to make the feeble suggestion that 30 November was a damp squib, but it wasn't -- it was popular, powerful and impressive.

I was out there on the picket lines, seeing the numbers at rallies and hearing about the passionate reasons why moderate workers had decided to take action. It wasn't because some nasty spectral bully in charge of their union had forced them into it; it was because they were fed up with what had been handed out to them, and why the public sector had been scapegoated and picked on by the Coalition to pay extra pensions that wouldn't even go into their pension pots.

These people weren't the usual leftie troublemakers stirring up disaffected workers; these were hardworking taxpayers who'd had enough of being squeezed dry.

These were men and women who simply did not buy the Government's line that we were all going to have to do our bit in these troubled times -- and I heard time and time again the comparison made between the pensions of those who had caused this crisis, those MPs who had failed their country, and those who were now being targeted as having 'gold-plated' futures. People aren't buying the Coalition's line, and that should be of real concern to them; it's not just the strikers and their natural sympathisers who have worked that out, either.

I had written, before 30 November, that the strikes risked drawing a wedge between similarly badly-treated groups of private and public sector workers unless they could appeal to as broad a range of people as possible. Looking at it now, I don't think those fears were justified. I heard many speakers and union members talking about the need to make private sector pensions fairer, the need for private and public sector workers to unite against the common enemy in Government, and the desire to ensure this didn't become a conflict between groups of employees.

Let's focus on that. Let's focus on the success of 30 November, and what it means for the future. The public don't trust the Government, despite the cheerleading for the Tory agenda and the hissing at the strikers from the usual sections of the press. Striking might upset some, but it has the support of many. Forget one man and his silly comments -- the debate about Clarkson is just what the Government would like to happen, to draw attention away from their miserably poor attempts to demonise strikers.

Don't let them get away with it. Otherwise, you should be taken outside and shot in front of your kids.

 

 

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.